Pollsters and the Fiction of the ‘the Will of the Voter’

Jack Kerwick
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Posted: Aug 10, 2016 12:01 AM
Pollsters and the Fiction of the ‘the Will of the Voter’

‘Tis the season for pollsters. 

As pollsters ad nauseum bombard us between now and November with a dizzying array of ever-fluctuating numbers, voters would be well-served to bear in mind that for all of their idealistic Democracy talk of “the will of the voter,” they know that the latter exists only as an object to be manipulated.

The 20th century English conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott put the epistemological point well when he noted that what we see depends upon how we look.  You can take it to the bank that those in the media treat this proposition just as axiomatically as did Oakeshott. 

And polling “data” is one especially effective device by which they seek to shape—not inform—their audiences’ perspective.

The pollster has occupied in politics a place equivalent in importance to that which the priest has traditionally occupied in the Catholic Church: Just as the priest has been regarded as speaking infallibly when speaking about certain matters pertaining to the faith, so too has the pollster been regarded similarly when he speaks to political matters.  The pollster can also exploit the contemporary mystique revolving around “science” through his numbers-crunching—even if it is only “social science.”

Joseph A. Schumpeter was an early 20th century political theorist who exposed long ago the metaphysical fiction of the rational voter presupposed by “the classical doctrine of democracy.”  This fiction remains very much in play today—as evidenced by the use of polling data and the like.

To put the point another way, Schumpeter argued convincingly that media partisans manipulate voters.

The ideal of democracy ascribes to “the will of the individual an independence and a rational quality that are altogether unrealistic.” The reality is that the voter’s will is “an indeterminate bundle of vague impulses loosely playing about given slogans and mistaken impressions.”  Such an entity cannot “observe and interpret correctly the facts that are directly accessible to everyone and…sift critically the information about the facts that are not.”

This being so, it follows that, standard clichés aside, “the will of the citizen per se” is not “entitled to respect,” for only if “everyone would…know definitely what he wants to stand for” would such respect be warranted. 

Yet this is most certainly not the case.

If the voter’s will was something determinate, then its assessment of facts, “according to the rules of logical inference,” should permit each person to render “a clear and prompt conclusion as to particular issues,” a conclusion of such “a high degree of general efficiency” that “one man’s opinion could be held…to be roughly as good as every other man’s.”

Moreover, this reasoning would have to transpire “independently of pressure groups and propaganda, for volitions and inferences that are imposed upon the electorate obviously do not qualify for ultimate data of the democratic process.”

Schumpeter observes that “the popular will” is “manufactured” in “exactly” the same ways in which the consumer’s will is manufactured via “commercial advertising.” He notes that we “find the same attempts to contact the subconscious,” “the same technique of creating favorable and unfavorable associations which are more effective the less rational they are.” The popular will is manufactured by way of “the same evasions and reticences and the same trick of producing opinion by reiterated assertion that is successful precisely to the extent to which it avoids rational argument and the danger of awakening the critical faculties of the people.”

To repeat: The voter’s will “is largely not a genuine but a manufactured will.”

Schumpeter’s point is not that the voter is irrational in all areas of his life. Quite the contrary, for regarding those decisions in everyday life whose effects on him are immediately felt, he can usually be counted on to act rationally.  But “when we move…farther away from the private concerns of the family and the business office” and toward, say, the domain of a presidential election, “individual volition, command of facts and method of inference” subside.  

To put it more brusquely, “the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field.”  That is, he “argues and analyzes in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests.  He becomes a primitive again. His thinking becomes associative and affective.”

Along with ads, commentary, and, yes, “journalism,” polls are designed to “manufacture,” not reflect, the will of the voter.